Kumquat Liqueur: Punch-drunk Love, Israeli Style

Anyone who has tasted Efrat Kaufmann’s fruit and herb liqueurs has surely noted her aspiration to perfection.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

“What shall we drink? – Why, water – that is a safe drink for all constitutions and ages, provided persons only use it when they are naturally thirsty. But do not drink heartily of cold water when heated or greatly fatigued. A cup of warm tea will better allay the thirst, and give a feeling of comfort to the stomach which water will not.

Toast and water, common beer, soda water, and other liquids of a similar kind, if they agree with the stomach, may be used freely without danger.

Fermented liquors such as porter, ale and wine, if used at all as a drink, should be very sparingly taken.

Distilled spirituous liquors should never be considered drinkable – they may be necessary, sometimes, as a medicine, but never, never consider them a necessary item in housekeeping. So important does it appear to me to dispense entirely with distilled spirits, as an article of domestic use, that I have not allowed a drop to enter into any of the recipes contained in this book.

As the primary effect of fermented liquors, cider, wine, etc., is to stimulate the nervous system, and quicken the circulation, these should be utterly prohibited to children and persons of a quick temperament. In truth, unless prescribed by a physician, it would be best to abstain entirely from their use.”

(From “The Good Housekeeper” 
by Sarah Josepha Hale, 1839)

Efrat Kaufmann tips the glass bottle – crystal bottles of this type once lined the shelves of old apothecary shops – and pours a light green herbal potion into a tiny goblet. For photographers, the magic hour is twilight time, when the sharp glare is replaced by the soft shadows of the waning day. For drinkers, the magic hour also lies on that seam between day and night and in the transition from clarity to haziness. We drink the delicately flavored liqueur – 15 different kinds of herbs are contained therein – and gaze happily upon the scene: a beautiful, slender, dark-haired woman pouring cordials into the guests’ glasses; and the silhouette of the bell tower of the Jaffa church visible through a semi-opaque curtain.

Kaufmann, 34, is one of those creatures who can spread beauty wherever they go. A keen sense of aesthetics and an original style and taste are hard to define in words, but not hard to identify. They are evident in her personal style – the clothes, the jewelry and the hair piled into a dramatic tower; they are reflected in the gorgeous apartment she and her husband renovated (he a gifted woodworker and she an expert at finding discarded items in the street and turning them into charming treasures). And anyone who has tasted the liqueurs she has been making for the past year has surely noted her aspiration to perfection and her unique imprint.

Liqueurs have come to be considered musty old drinks found in the cabinets of elderly aunts, often containing a surplus of sugar (which causes most people to make a face as soon as they taste it, and gives those who persist in drinking it a hangover from hell). But the liqueurs made by Kaufmann are not overly sweet. The absence of sugar is responsible for the smooth, pleasing texture, unlike the typically heavy, syrupy texture of mediocre homemade liqueurs. They have a wonderfully original flavor and aroma, which are faithful to their ingredients. The grapefruit peel liqueur really and truly smells like a citrus orchard at the peak of its blossoming; the pitanga and pink guava maintain the flavor and aroma of the fresh fruit before they were preserved in sugar or alcohol.

Helping Grandma

Kaufmann, who has a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in business administration, has been flirting with the culinary arts for years. “In the time between the end of high school and when I started my army service, I worked in restaurant kitchens and with a chocolate maker,” says Kaufmann, who grew up in Ramat Hen. “Later I worked as a waitress when I was at university, and as a pastry chef for the late Hanoch Bar Shalom. I worked as a cook in a deli in New Zealand during another long trip to the East before having to decide on a ‘grown-up job.’ It was only when I finished my master’s degree that I started working in my profession – first at Microsoft, in community relations, and later at different banks.”

She plunged into the world of liqueurs a little over a year ago. “Both our families live in houses with fruit trees in the yard and our parents were always bringing us tons of lemons,” she says. “So for the first time in my life I decided to make lemon liqueur. It became a hit at the dinners we often host with friends and family – we like to cook and have people over – and limoncello sparks the appetite.” Her next project was herbal liqueurs, among the most ancient type of such concoctions. Such liqueurs originated as a result of the inferior products of primitive distilling techniques, as a way to improve their flavor, or as British author Kingsley Amis once described it – thanks to monks who had knowledge of the healing arts and plenty of free time on their hands.

“My grandmother, who is 92 and lives in an old age home, has problems with her digestion. She heard that becherovka, the famous Czech liqueur, could help, so I decided to try to make some homemade herb liqueur for her. I started doing some extensive botanical research and experimenting, and eventually I came up with two liqueurs, each of which is based on dozens of wild and medicinal herbs. One is meant to help with digestive problems, and the other is a digestif that helps soothe heartburn. Grandma and her friends at the old age home were totally hooked. At first I thought they were just saying that. Grandma isn’t exactly objective when it comes to me, and her friends also always say nice things about whatever her beloved granddaughter brings, but after a while other people started to rave about them too, including some people who work in the field of food and alcohol professionally, so I decided to really get into it seriously.”

From then on, she expanded to making all kinds of different liqueurs. Some are based on fermenting the pulp or peel of different fruits; others on soaking the fruit; and a whole variety of spirits is based on different herbs and spices. There is a whole family of citrus liqueurs – pink grapefruit, pomelo, kumquat and Mandarin orange; there are liqueurs based on pitanga, figs and pomegranates; liqueurs that maintain a fine balance between fruits and seasonings, such as Uzbek apricot and chili, or pears and anise; honey liqueur and much more. The selection changes from week to week in keeping with the seasons, and the cupboards are filled with jars of potions at different stages of the aging process. All the liqueurs are made in very limited editions, bottled in attractive bottles with a hand-printed white label and decorative bow.

What does the future hold? Can a small business making fine liqueurs be economically viable? Kaufmann can’t say. For now, anyway, the appearance of small manufacturers of artisanal alcohol is a delight for aficionados of good drink.

Homemade Liqueurs
by Efrat Kaufmann 

Efrat Kaufmann.Credit: Dan Peretz
Kumquat liqueur.Credit: Dan Peretz
Kumquat liqueur.Credit: Dan Peretz

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